Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
And now for the next entry on the list of books-I-should-have-reviewed-a-long-time-ago-but-somehow-didn’t, with a book that made me absolutely insufferable for at least a year after I’d read it. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I first (and last) read this, but here we are. I discovered the book completely by chance at the Gaithersburg library, and then – equally by chance – found out that there was a TV show scheduled to be released the following May. In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t have a consistent book blog in 2018 and also that I didn’t have the energy to scrape together a review when I finally did set up a proper blog. I was on the point of selling my soul to this book after the first 20 pages but now it’s been five years and, while I still love the concept, the story, and the characters, I do have some notes. (Also, fun story: this was originally meant to be this year’s Halloween post, but then I started writing it and I realized I was going to have to publish it a lot sooner if I wanted the timing to make sense with the release of the second season. Long story short, I no longer have a Halloween post planned.)
Good Omens is the story of the Apocalypse and the witch who predicted it (sort of), and the descendants of that witch, who built their entire family identity around preventing the Apocalypse. It is also the story of four English kids and the best summer ever, and it is also also the story of an angel and a demon who have spent 6,000 years on Earth and actually kinda love it. It begins with the laid-back demon Crawly and the stuffy angel Aziraphale, who meet on the job in the Garden of Eden. Crawly tempts Eve into taking the apple and Adam and Eve are promptly evicted, though Aziraphale gives them his flaming sword in a burst of guilt, and the whole thing paves the way for the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Though they were both sent to Earth to mess with the humans, they realize over the next several millennia that they enjoy life on Earth, aside from the fourteenth century, and by the time the twentieth century rolls around they are both so entrenched in human life that neither has any interest in Armageddon.
Unfortunately, their superiors have other plans, and both angel and demon are aghast when Crawly – now calling himself Anthony J. Crowley – is charged with swapping the newborn son of an American ambassador with the Antichrist, the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness. However, everyone involved in the switcheroo is wildly incompetent, and the Antichrist is bundled off with Arthur and Deirdre Young, an English couple from the village of Tadfield in Oxfordshire. The Youngs’ newborn son is given to the ambassador and his wife, who name him Warlock Dowling, and the Dowlings’ own son is adopted by a Tadfield couple called Johnson. Unaware of the botched switch, Crowley and Aziraphale spend the next decade monitoring Warlock for any signs of Antichristness, secretly sending their underlings to influence the boy in the hopes of keeping him on a neutral path. Under laboratory conditions, this will theoretically prevent Warlock from claiming his place as the notorious son of Satan, and is thus expected to avert the Apocalypse despite the loftier goals of the powers that be.
Eleven years later, Adam Young – unnoticed by the forces of Heaven and Hell and therefore ignored by both – has grown into a happy, kindhearted child with a wild imagination and a knack for getting his way. He and his best friends (Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale) are collectively known as the Them, and frequently get into scrapes with an opposing gang called the Johnsonites, led by local bully Greasy Johnson. Though he is completely unaware of his actual parentage, Adam has unintentionally been exerting a supernatural influence over the entire village of Tadfield for the last several years: while the world outside changes and updates, Tadfield remains a quiet backwater with picture-perfect weather every season, protected from any sort of change by Adam’s deep and unshakable love for his home. His magic also quietly reshapes the hellhound sent to him as an eleventh birthday gift, overwriting its vicious nature in response to Adam’s desires, and – inspired by the new age magazines supplied by his new neighbor, Anathema Device – causes quite a bit of mythological chaos before he learns how to rein it in.
Anathema, meanwhile, is a suspected witch, a self-styled occultist, and the last living descendant of the most accurate prophet in history. She has spent her life following the predictions written by her ancestor, Agnes Nutter, who was burned at the stake for being a witch but also took out her entire village with the gunpowder and roofing nails concealed in her skirts. Before her death, she wrote up 300 years’ worth of predictions and had them published as a book called The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, which didn’t sell but did supply her with a complimentary author’s copy that has since been passed down through the generations of her descendants, per her extremely detailed letters. Though the bulk of her predictions tend to make the most sense in retrospect, her descendants have followed them religiously up to the present day, and have even done quite well for themselves with some of her financial advice. Following Agnes’s instructions, Anathema meets Newton “Newt” Pulsifer, a technology-obliterating accountant. He is also a Witchfinder Private in the modern-day Witchfinder Army, which currently comprises only himself and the overzealous Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, and he is the last surviving descendant of Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer, the Witchfinder Major who burned Agnes at the stake. This isn’t the best meet-cute, but 300 years have gone under the bridge since their ancestors murdered each other, and they quickly team up to save the world from nuclear armageddon. (Again, it’s all in The Book.)
While Anathema and Newt rush to shut down the array of dangerous technology activated by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (who in this case are more like the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse), Crowley and Aziraphale find themselves accompanied by Sergeant Shadwell and his neighbor, Madame Tracy, an aging dominatrix who makes most of her money nowadays masquerading as a spiritual medium. They are joined at the last minute by Adam and the Them, who manage to seal away three of the Bikers – Death, of course, is unsealable – shortly before the representatives of Heaven and Hell join forces to try to cajole the Antichrist into kicking off the end of the world. Negotiations failing hideously, both representatives return to their respective homes to seek clearer instruction on the technical distinction between the Great Plan and the ineffable Plan. Even Satan’s attempted intervention doesn’t do much: he tries to have a word with his errant son, but Adam rewrites reality, banishing Satan and setting the world back more or less the way it was. At the end of all things, Anathema and Newt receive the previously unheard-of sequel to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies, but decide to burn it; Crowley and Aziraphale go about their lives as usual, privately speculating that the next great war will take place between the supernatural world and the human world; Shadwell and Madame Tracy become engaged, permanently shuttering the Witchfinder Army; and Adam and the Them return to their happy childhood.
This might actually be the most lovable Apocalypse I’ve ever seen. I love Adam, even if I can’t entirely love his friends, who sometimes read too much like an adult’s idea of children. I love the idea of an Antichrist who grows up 100% human with no supernatural influences, who is in most respects an ordinary boy who just happens to have potentially world-ending powers. He is curious and imaginative without being deliberately destructive, and he truly tries to give everyone a happy ending. Even Warlock and Greasy Johnson get to share in the largesse: even if he doesn’t really know them, they were all born on the same day in the same place, and he considers them his first friends. After the debacle that was Outcast of Redwall (Brian Jacques), I especially appreciate that Adam – despite having the most notorious fallen angel in the world for a father – shares none of his father’s values. He is, at base, a really good kid who likes aliens and cowboys, who tries his darndest to make other people happy, who loves his friends and his family and his hellhound, appropriately named “Dog.” I love that his greatest priority is preserving his beloved Tadfield exactly as it is, even before he knows about his powers. This is such a wholesome application of infernal magic that I can’t begrudge him his resistance to change. When he finally does learn his true identity, he is briefly tempted to raze the world and start all over again – Anathema’s hippie magazines are somewhat to blame for this – but his affection for his friends and his attachment to the human world push him to come up with a better solution. He is sweet and adorable, and I hope he never changes.
I also love Anathema and Newt and I even love them together, but the stars of the show are Agnes, Crowley, and Aziraphale. Agnes is a total badass, from her name to the roofing nails that blow her village off the map. She is smart and feisty and hilarious, and she gives her family a 300-year headache but I can’t be mad because she is right about everything. As for Crowley and Aziraphale, their friendship is the main reason I keep coming back to this book and the accompanying show. I love that they’re both such derps who – in the show, at least – instinctively present as dorky middle-aged humans. I love that they both lean into the aesthetics of their respective roles (Crowley drives a cool car and wears shades even when he doesn’t need to, Aziraphale runs a bookshop) without ever becoming one-dimensional: Crowley can be kindhearted, much though he denies it, and Aziraphale can be ruthless, particularly when his bookshop is involved. I have seen them described as “Assigned Dads at Birth,” and for the life of me I have never seen anything more perfect or more lovable. I even enjoy their meandering philosophical conversations and Crowley’s inner streams of consciousness, in which he often muses on the frequency with which humans beat him to the most horrific ideas. There is literally nothing I would change about their characters or their relationship. They are absolutely the best thing to come out of this book.
Having said that, I wish I could have seen more of them. As much as I like Anathema, Newt, Adam, and the whole of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, I don’t actually like the human portions of the story that much. Based on the fanart I’ve seen over the years, this seems to be a fairly common feeling among the fandom – I’m assuming this is the reason the second season seems to be more focused on the angels and demons, yes? – and I am confident that I am not alone in wishing that some of those humans had been given more reduced roles. I particularly dislike the relationship between Shadwell and Madame Tracy, who seems to want nothing more in life than to take care of this ignorant, verbally abusive old man until one of them drops dead. He doesn’t even have to marry her to reap the benefits, they both just take her service for granted. I am also annoyed with the narrative surrounding Shadwell’s racism, that is, that he is racist against every BIPOC person and is therefore inoffensive because he simply hates everybody. I have noticed that a lot of people like to try to excuse themselves this way. This is an idea that needs to be unlearned at once, because Shadwell’s attitude towards his Asian landlord is not funny or cute. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen and it isn’t too prominent, but that isn’t the same as saying it can be excused. (Of course, Shadwell has also been scamming Crowley and Aziraphale for decades and that is hilarious, so he’s not completely without merit.)
Aside from the Shadwell problem, there are many, many places where I thought the verbal sparring between the different members of the Them needed to be cut down or even cut out. A lot of their conversations feel like a series of pointless one-liners, and they are hard to get through, especially as a lot of the jokes are by this point dated enough or niche enough that I can’t always follow them. Case in point: I had to look up Madame Blavatsky because I simply do not have the cultural reference point to decipher “Madame Blatvatatatsky,” much less take any meaning from it. Overall I found the conversations between the Them to be repetitive and grating, particularly towards the end, as Adam begins to lecture them on their “grass materialism” and the need to start over; and it also doesn’t help that Adam’s dialogue is often accompanied by the adverbs “airily” and “loftily.” Like, I really should not be seeing these same adverbs more than twice. I like that the Them all have each other’s backs, but their daily interactions have a certain combativeness that makes them unpleasant to read and irritating to listen to, and, whether in print or in audio, they are way too goddamn long.
And, though I suppose it isn’t really the point, the final battle is incredibly disappointing. Even with the reality-bending powers of the Antichrist, I have a hard time believing that sticks and strings can be used to defeat the Four Horsemen, and I’m not really sure why the Them needed to be involved at all, except to act as the Horsemen of the Antichrist. Sure, the book is more about the journey and less about the resolution, a saunter through time, if you will, but it still wraps up too quickly and easily. I would have liked to have seen Adam explore the limits of his powers. It would’ve been equally badass to see Crowley and Aziraphale actually do something, instead of just lawyering their way out of the Metatron/Beelzebub confrontation and then just baaaaaaarely escaping the fight with Satan. They were off to a good start with the wings and the flaming sword, I wish it had actually come to something. There’s only so much you can do with hand-waving and instant reality-warping. I like the sweetness of the ending and I hope Adam gets to live a peaceful life, but I really wish that battle had been just slightly less anticlimactic.
Yet even with this disappointment and the outdated ’80s language and ideas, I do still love the book. I love this world that Pratchett and Gaiman have created, and I love the humor, which isn’t as obscure as I’ve made it sound, though according to the authors their editors did somewhat struggle with it. (Wait, let me guess: Americans don’t understand humor.) My favorite running gag is Crowley’s belief in the efficacy of trickle-down evilness, in which he spends all his time making life moderately inconvenient for the people of London without ever seeming to realize that he is inconveniencing himself as much as the humans. I also recommend reading the authors’ foreword, as well as their ending essays, in which they talk about their friendship and their process for writing Good Omens. There are obviously things that I wish had been better, but my objections were largely corrected in the show, so I’m not too bothered. This remains the funniest book and the funniest show that have ever addressed the Apocalypse, and I can’t wait to watch season 2.